Nestled among acres of cornfields and farmlands in Easton, Pa., the Crayola factory cranks out colors like Carnation Pink and Burnt Sienna as quickly as a nearby dairy farm churns butter. A staple on back-to-school shopping lists, Crayola's yellow box of crayons had enjoyed a consistent, if quiet, existence in the world of toys and crafts for the past century. Then a marketing campaign to add a new blue crayon to the popular 24-count box—and get rid of another—propelled the brand into the spotlight earlier this year.
The company began a contest to name the new hue but kept secret which color it would replace. Add a dash of nostalgia and you have all the trappings of a buzzworthy campaign. When a Target shopper figured out Dandelion Yellow was already missing from cartons, he spoiled the surprise on Twitter. As a result, the 114-year-old brand saw some of its strongest consumer engagement since people started tracking that sort of thing. Now as school shopping looms in earnest, the campaign is entering its final phase.
The question remains whether Crayola can achieve the kind of hip-to-be-analog alchemy that Lego pulled off with its hit movies and to lodge itself in the fore of a tech-obsessed pop culture.
Arts and crafts sales within the traditional U.S. toy sector grew nearly 10% from 2011 through 2016, to $1.9 billion, according to research firm Euromonitor International. Though Crayola commands a healthy share of arts and crafts, 48.6% last year, that's down slightly from 49.6% in 2011, Euromonitor said.
"This was the largest promotion we've ever done," said Melanie Boulden, who joined Crayola as senior VP-U.S. and global marketing two years ago. No stranger to children's marketing—before crayons, she handled the Capri Sun and Lunchables brands at Kraft Foods—Boulden was hired to imbue Crayola with a fresh marketing spirit.
Crayola has actually been approached over the years for "Lego Movie"-scale collaborations, but the right opportunity has yet to arise, according to executives. "Certainly, if the right partnership came around, we would seriously look into it," Boulden said. She's more focused on Crayola's current campaigns, including the personification of colors. Last year, Scarlet became a sassy "spokes-crayon" in an animated spot rather than just a regular red crayon.
Brands well beyond Crayola, which Hallmark bought in 1984, and categories much larger than toys are struggling with the rise of tech. But the challenge is particularly vivid for a wax-stick product rooted so far from the information age. As children become more digitally savvy, and interactive toys like tablets and Hatchimals take over, Crayola is working to maintain its relevance as a champion of creativity.
It's also up against trendier, and newer, analog players like Melissa & Doug and Plan Toys and, of course, the must-have of the moment, fidget spinners.
Some of Crayola's efforts, like a recent nail color collaboration with Sally Hansen and a lip color collection with Clinique, are designed to attract older consumers along with their kids. Many art-focused offerings, like the two-year-old Color Alive franchise, include a digital component that lets artists bring their drawings to life through an app. The brand is also expanding its Crayola Experience retail stores, which promote activities alongside products.